Saturday, June 27, 2009

No Country for Old Men

I finally sat down to watch No Country for Old Men last night and after a day of reflection, have to say I quite enjoyed it, in spite of and because of the bitter-dark tones.

I got amused at the setting of 1980 because until well into the film, when Chighur is telling the shop owner to call it, I didn't notice. That small Texas town, the plains, the mobile home decor, doesn't change much with time.

The play with reflection, and wounded animals in particular were very well done. When Chigurh limps away with the bone sticking out of his arm, humbled in some ways by the same way the coin gets here, the echoes of the dying dog that leads Llewelyn into his doom at the opening make a nicely completed circle.

Tommy Lee Jones as the old man sensible enough to know how lost he is against this modern darkness is wonderful. "Age will flatten a man." And the blinding flatness of sundrenched west Texas played so well against the black as night scenes.

But my very favorite scene is the between Ed (Tommy Lee) and his brother Ellis (Barry Corbin, whom I love). Ed bemoans the future, his inability to find a place in it, and Ellis says, as matterafactly as you please, "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity." Beautifully written script, Coens. I will watch this one many times over.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009


from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything but heaven.

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words, a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him.

Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling of that something which you were born desiring?

You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been hints of it.

Yet you know that should these echoes turn into the true sound, you would know it at once. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, "here at last is the thing I was made for."

We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we were born desiring and will die desiring.

Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to your Creator; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.

Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love.

Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it.

The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death, you cannot see the gold. But we have reminders of it.

And why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?

Our hint on this earth can be found in our community, a society in which we each have something to tell the others. Our earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations for the true ends for which the individual was created.

God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness.

This union is Heaven, eternally engaged in giving away everything we are, in poetry, music, art, literature, to our Creator and His other Creations. For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation, but of all being.


from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.

If winning is possible only through self-surrender, and self surrender can only be chosen by the individual, then every man has the choice to refuse.

I would love to believe everyone will win, but therein lies the problem. If it requires an act of their own wills, what if they will not give in?

This is the primary attack on Christianity: how barbarous to suggest those who reject Christ will spend eternity apart from God! Who wants a God like that?

The complexity of Christianity lies in the fact of a God so full of mercy that He takes on a human life and lays it down through the most unimaginable torture in order to avert our final ruin but then seems unwilling to offer another remedy when his creatures refuse the sacrifice.

"And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell" (121).

If a man wishes to refuse, by rights his will must be respected. Hell is simply the fulfillment of that choice: he is wholly his own and God will not bother him any more.

What of second chances, then? "I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given . . . . Finality must come some time, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when" (126).

The Scriptures speak of Hell as destruction, punishment, and exclusion. We try to imagine human beings in hell. But they are not. To enter heaven is to put on what it means to be completely human, far more than we ever knew on earth; to enter hell is to leave behind what little we knew of being human, to be banished from humanity entirely.

The remains of that man can enjoy forever the horrible freedom he has demanded, enslaved only to himself. As the full humanity of the man in heaven will become, throughout eternity, more and more free.

dimly lit corners

A blog from the middle of our move, when I'd flown up to meet the movers and unpacked practically the whole house in the space of four days. I've had a number of people comment on this one, so I wanted to move it to my new blogger home.

May 2007

In the middle of unpacking my life I find I am suddenly racing backward through experiences and time and emotions. Things packed in haste months ago, from closets where they had sat unnoticed for years, are rediscovered anew.

These are the things from the basement boxes, stacked up under the staircase, that no one could really remember what had been packed in them in the first place. Baby clothes and baseball trophies, dolls and beanie babies, Happy Meal toys, ticket stubs, duplicate photographs that I religiously scrapbooked but saw and appreciated differently when found buried in the dim corner of a box.

There is the old adage that if you live a year in a place without unpacking the box, you might as well toss it all since you clearly don't need it. But never one to adhere to common sense when apathy is easier, these things were taken along and, miraculously, discovered this morning as I shelved countless books and CDs from the heavy containers.

And there, in the midst of it all, was the nearly crushed shoebox that looked like it may well have housed shiny new shoes sometime back before 1975. Now it sheltered pieces of a childhood memories I somehow held on long enough to rediscover.

There were letters from my first friend, Marian. We were first friends because our mothers were friends and there are numerous baby pictures of us, born six months apart, propped beside one another. The letters, filled with notes about classes and friends and plans are from our junior high years, when she lived in Canada. I remember being entranced by her use of "eh?" all over again as I read them this morning, wondering what her life might be like.

There are cards from my grandmothers, Me-Maw and Mammammy, in that perfect script I could never possibly attain; just a couple of words, simple, discardable really, and yet, running my hand across the place where their wrists had lain as they signed it, that simplicity brought back their faces, their laughs, and a sweet sadness that made me glad to be alive.

There were postcards from friends in elementary school whose last names I cannot recall as well as cards from my mother during my freshman year of college with news about the house they were building and the enclosed spending money, just because.

There were Academic Decathlon medals from our state competition my senior year (aha, that's why the box was so heavy) and a cassette tape of my boyfriend's band that, somehow, through 20 years of storage, still worked.

So, in terms of a moving update, it was slow going this morning, but a lovely respite from the monotonous tasks that have to get done this afternoon. And now, while folding towels and hanging clothes, I'll be whistling that jazzy little number that delighted me so when I heard it again, and wondering how forgetting and remembering always seem to be wrapped up together in ways we can only discover spontaneously, often when it's raining, in those dimly lit corners, between the pages of our lives.
Saturday, June 20, 2009

black and white secrets

This was a photograph of Bob and Jewel Blaylock, taken in the early 40s, on the beach of Port Aransas.

I always knew them as Mammammy and Granddaddy. They lived with us from the time I was 5 years old until I left for college, so they were my second set of parents.

I thought I knew them.

It wasn't until adulthood that I discovered they'd had their own secrets all along. I wasn't until adulthood that I understood secrets are just a part of life.

Bob was 12 years older than Jewel and, it turns out, she was not his first wife, nor was my mother his first daughter. Where my mom's half sister might be will forever remain a mystery, as will the reasons behind why the divorce settlement apparently included Bob never having contact with his first family again.

After Mammammy died, my dad and I were sorting through a box of her old pictures. One after another, I'd pull out only half a picture, ripped down the center, with my mother as a child. The other half, long discarded, was the face of my grandmother. As a child, my mother would come home to what seemed to be an empty house, only to find mammammy hiding in a closet, sobbing her heart out. Small secrets such as that just seemed to pour out of that box of photographs. I still wonder what heartache drove her. I'm sure undiagnosed depression was part of it. But hearing that story, in the midst of my own depression, I felt as though a small lamp had been lit. It was what drove me to seek help.

I've just finished a weekend of scanning, editing, and archiving another box filled with my family's vintage photographs. So many of the stories behind those moments are lost. Looking at them, it's like another box full of secrets, and they are all my relations.

The Road Not Taken

Since I've left the classroom and haven't taught poetry in over two years, I find I quite miss the discussion of poems I'd taught so many times I'd had both them and their lectures memorized. One of my favorite discussions to have concerned Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

"It's not what you think," I'd always start out, "You think you know this poem. You've heard it at graduations and momentous occasions your entire life. But you've never really known this poem."

I'd read the poem aloud and then ask them what it was about. Sure enough, the trite answers that regurgitated the ending were spit back at me.

Robert Frost has a lot of people fooled. He'd have it no other way, I think. I remember reading an excerpt of an interview in which Frost mentions the passage in Mark (4:11) "Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them." Frost seemed to equate parable with poetry and quite insisted that people think deeply for themselves else he would happily confuse them.

I would ask my students to look again. Where has Frost laid the traps here?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

"What happens," I would ask them, "if you stop before the last stanza and look for the differences in the two roads?" My sharper students would dutifully return to the poem, hunched over their massive textbook and a few brows would start to knit together.

The first three stanza don't have a road less traveled, of course. There is a road not taken, to be sure, but "as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same And both that morning equally lay..."

If we stopped at the end of stanza three, we'd have a sweet little poem about longing, the wish to explore alternatives and other lives in a larger analogy, but the basic realization life doesn't give us those options.

The trap is the fourth stanza. There's a perceptive shift here between the simple language of the what's come before, the folksy "here's what I was thinking about this afternoon on my walk" kind of tone and that of the last stanza. Suddenly, the speaker turns melodramatic, in the future tense, no less, somehow knowing that his simple choice will be conflated into something untrue not by reality, but by his own memory.

As an old man, the need to impart meaning and importance will supercede the truth.

As I draw closer to 40, I already see myself trying to impart greater significance to moments from my youth than they rightfully deserve. So which matters the most? The truth or our perception? And matters the most to whom?

Or is the closest thing to salvation simply awareness?

. . .not all who wander are lost . . .

As the inaugural post, let me just clarify περιπλάνηση. It's the ancient Greek characters for the word periplanisi which simply means wandering.

All that is gold does not glitter,
not all who wander are lost,
the old that are strong do not wither,
deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring